When in 1985 the musical version of Les Miserables hit the stage, it was panned by critics; it was left to audiences to grasp the sheer power both of the story and of the music. Now, the world’s longest running musical has been adapted into an epic film which ultimately celebrates the power of redemptive love.
For the uninitiated, Les Miserables needs best to be understood as a phenomenon and indeed its success has been something of a double edged sword. Sixty million people have seen the show live, though this figure perhaps includes an element of repeat attenders: it’s the sort of show where it is not unusual to find in the audience those who have seen it seven or eight times previously. It’s a field day for cynics.
Don’t be put off, however, by such obsession or the show’s cult like status. At core, it is the story of salvation, focused on the character of Jean Valjean. Imprisoned in post-Napoleanic France for the theft of bread for his starving sister, Valjean is released on parole, warned that forever more he will be a marked man, forever haunted by his past. Valjean is a bitter man, almost defiled by his own anger. Destitute and hungry, he finds himself taken in by a gentle and kindly bishop. At night, while the bishop sleeps, Valjean steals the bishop’s silverware but is caught by the local police almost immediately. Yet when faced with the chance to exact revenge, the bishop shows forgiveness and dismisses the police. He blesses Valjean, and gives him additional silverware, including his finest candlesticks – sell the silver and live an honest life.
Sent on his way, Valjean makes money, rising to become owner of a successful factory and growing in respectability. But he is ruthlessly pursued by the one time prison guard Javert who believes that a man can never change; that forever more, Valjean is a thief. Obsessed by the letter of the law, unable to forgive and unable to accept the possibility of redemption, Javert becomes increasingly frantic in his searching for Valjean. Yet Valjean escapes, eventually ending in Paris with an adopted daughter, but the city is in turmoil: the poor are crying out for food, and angry young men are demanding justice. In a way – not least in the plot’s constant use of coincidence – the story is almost Dickensian, with gross caricatures of vice and a throbbing moral consciousness. This, perhaps, should not surprise. Victor Hugo – French nineteenth century author of the novel on which the musical is based – was a contemporary of Dickens.
Throughout, the focus is on the poor and forgotten in society: those forced into prostitution; the orphaned; the corrupt and the corrupted. And in helping the audience to understand the story’s place in French history, the film is perhaps even more successful than the play. But this is a story with a spiritual message: mercy triumphs over judgement; love wins over hate; evil is defeated and running through everything, in the midst of the most terrible of suffering, is a sense of sacrificial, redeeming love.
Filming any musical is a challenge: cinema often rests on realism, whereas musicals rely on a very different set of conventions. However, it would be hard to find a film more different from the stereotype of a Rogers and Hammerstein Sound of Music romp. There are moments of grandeur, but Tom Hooper’s direction results in a very intimate film. Often, the apparently handheld camera is focussed on just one character creating a sense of authenticity, increased by the fact that the actors sing ‘live’ rather than to a pre-recorded sound track; the effect of this is quite startling. Songs which you might think you know are rendered differently, bringing a fresh power to them. I was conscious much more than in the stage version of how the different songs echo and re-echo each other, either musically or through the lyrics.
Perhaps inevitably – given the enormous cost of producing a film on this scale – the producers have opted for some ‘big’ name actors over established performers from musical theatre, but the singing is entirely credible – moments where it lacks polish merely added to the sense of realism. As in The King’s Speech (also directed by Hooper), the direction manages to elicit powerful performances. As Javert, Russell Crowe is entirely believable, managing to convey – even with some sympathy – a sense of the character’s righteous indignation. Hugh Jackman’s Valjean is both well cast and affecting, particularly when Valjean earns respectability following the kindness of the Bishop of Digne. Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of Fontine managed to capture both a sense of her vulnerability and her quiet determination, whatever her circumstances. Of the younger women, it was Samantha Banks as Eponine (particularly her rendition of ‘On My Own’) who stood out. In terms of love interest, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette is charming and loyal, whilst Marius (Eddie Redmayne) seemed both innocent and passionate.
Audience reception has been ecstatic; reports of uncontrolled crying from audience members are entirely credible. About an hour in, my chest was in agony, such was the intensity of the emotion, and I was glad of the excuse of a cold as I wiped my eyes at the end.
My advice? Find a cinema with a decent sound system. Go with no preconceptions. Be won over by this compelling story of redemption, of triumph and tragedy. And start to understand just why sixty million people cannot be that wrong.